Fundamentalists attack 'feminist agenda'

September 06, 1995|By Diana Hochstedt Butler | Diana Hochstedt Butler,c.1995 Diana Hochstedt Butler

EVANGELICAL leader James Dobson sees the United Nations Conference on Women as "The greatest threat to the family in my lifetime."

"It will represent the most radical, atheistic and anti-family crusade in the history of the world," he says.

Claiming the Beijing conference mocks God and the family, Dobson has summoned his powerful "Focus on the Family" constituency to "derail this gender feminism juggernaut."

For weeks, conservative evangelical and fundamentalist leaders have warned of Beijing's frightening agenda: "to undermine the family, promote abortion, teach immoral behavior to teenagers, incite anger and competition between men and women, advocate lesbian and homosexual behavior, and vilify those with sincere religious faith."

"This," Dobson proclaimed, "is Satan's trump card if I have ever seen it."

When asked to define fundamentalism, an eminent American historian once quipped, "A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something."

Right now, evangelicals are angry about feminism.

As Dobson's comments illustrate, a new militancy against women's rights is spreading throughout America's conservative churches.

In the early 20th century, some Protestants reacted against theological liberalism and modern culture by forming a movement dubbed "Fundamentalism." Fearing the disorder of modernity, fundamentalists hammered away at the sources of chaos: smoking, dancing, rock 'n roll, movies, Roman Catholicism, liberalism and communism.

With the demise of global communism, fundamentalist militancy turned toward internal enemies: television, Bill and Hillary Clinton, homosexuals, abortion. But in recent years, fundamentalists lay the blame for American disorder squarely at the feet of women.

Not all women, of course, only those who challenge their views offemininity and motherhood. The so-called "feminist agenda" threatens to destroy salvation's cradle, the Christian family.

Although contemporary feminism provides fundamentalist leaders a new crusade, they err on a very significant point. No "feminist agenda" exists.

There is no "feminist agenda" because there is no single feminism. Rather, feminism exists in numerous forms: classical liberal democratic, religious, socialist, Marxist, radical, post-modern, non-Western feminisms, and womanist movements.

These feminisms share commitments to women's legal equality and human rights -- and the need to alleviate suffering of women and children. Yet, they argue about how to implement these common concerns.

Anti-feminist fundamentalism wrongly identifies the views of a minority of feminists as a monolithic "feminist agenda." They set up a straw-woman to attack their opponents.

Although Dobson failed to mention it, among Beijing's delegates are numerous religious feminists. Throughout the world, faithful Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Hindu women draw feminist convictions from their ethics, Scriptures, and spiritualities.

Point 31 of the conference document acknowledges this: "Religion plays a central role in the lives of millions of women, in the way they live and the aspirations they have for the future. While any form of extremism, religious or secular, has a negative impact on women. . . . [the] serious issues with which the world is confronted today require a more effective response by societies not only to the material but also to the spiritual needs of individuals, including women."

Indeed, one Muslim feminist, Pakistan's Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, opened the conference.

Dressed traditionally, with her head covered, she said, "I stand before you not only as a prime minister, but as a women and a mother . . . it is socially correct for a woman to work and to be a mother at the same time." The delegates applauded enthusiastically.

So, contra fundamentalist propaganda, the Beijing conference opened with a religious woman stating her dual commitment to work and motherhood.

One evangelical magazine called Beijing's agenda "bewildering."

That's right. Because the women delegates differ as much as any other group of 40,000 people, numerous agendas -- including religious ones -- are shaping the conference.

However, the delegates do share a common desire for human rights, the end to violence against women, the elimination of female poverty, and better health care and education for women.

This hardly seems like "Satan's trump card" to me. Although I resist identifying divine intentions, these things might be desired by the opposite side.

As a Christian, I pray for the delegates to succeed. In creating a better world for women, they create a better world for all of us.

Diana Hochstedt Butler holds a doctorate in American religious history. She wrotes this piece for the News-Press in Santa Barbara, Calif.

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